ST. PETERSBURG — Before the in-your-face shouting and the threatened violence and the flier with Christopher Kosiorek's jail mug shot and the eviction notice, Americana Cove was Mary Bickhart's retirement dream.
The dream has turned into a lawsuit pitting Bickhart and her family against the mobile home park's board.
She and her husband bought a waterfront home five years ago in the park in northeast St. Petersburg. They soon bought a second home and invited their daughter and mentally challenged grandson, Kosiorek, to live there. Bickhart, a retired teacher who worked with mentally challenged students for 20 years, wanted to help her grandson with his daily living, something his own mother needed help doing.
In 2008, Kosiorek, then 22, was charged with having sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old girl several times in a home outside Americana Cove. A year later, Kosiorek pled guilty to child abuse, a third-degree felony. In court, both Kosiorek and the girl said the sex was consensual.
Kosiorek was sentenced to five years' probation and a 10 p.m. curfew for six months.
Soon after the criminal case was over, Bickhart, 65, says, the harassment began. There were phone calls, unwanted visits and confrontations in the clubhouse and at board meetings and fliers posted around the park. They called him a "sex offender," a "sexual predator" and a "pedophile." Kosiorek is not on the state's list of sexual offenders and predators. Finally the board voted that Kosiorek must leave, noting that felons are not allowed to live in the park.
Bickhart responded by suing. The problem, says the family's attorney, Charles R. Gallagher, is that the board is selectively enforcing its rules. Several felons live in the park.
In addition, Americana Cove advertises itself as an over-55 park, but several people under that age live there, he said.
The lawsuit is seeking damages for harassment, emotional stress and defamation. "Any retarded person has a right to live in that park or any park," said Bickhart, who is a member of the park's board.
As part of Kosiorek's sentencing, he was evaluated by a psychologist who found that his IQ is 74 and his common sense impaired.
Added Gallagher: "The deeper issue here is giving respect and according rights to handicapped individuals as is allowed within the law."
The lawsuit, which names six individual board members in addition to the board as a whole, has created a divide in the otherwise tight-knit mobile home park at 7201 First St. NE. All of the defendants — James Huff III, Barbara Gallant, Robert L. Johnson, Kerry Dacus, Prudy Piechota and Gerry Zebley — either declined to comment or did not return phone calls.
Jeremy W. Rodgers, an attorney for Americana Cove, declined to comment, saying only: "We're confident that in the end we will prevail."
Bickhart is trying to sell her property. She remains on the board but her voting rights have been taken away. She says she takes a tranquilizer whenever she goes to board meetings.
Her grandson has moved out, but she would like him to be able to return.
"How we ever got into this mess, I don't know," said Kay Jones, 87, who has lived in the park for 30 years and is friendly with both sides. "I'm sure that sooner or later it'll get straightened up and we will be the loving park that we're meant to be."
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Luis Perez can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2271.